BERLIN — When Turkish government officials repeated to German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel their refusal to allow German parliamentarians unconditional access to their troops at Incirlik base, it was the proverbial straw that broke that suffering camel’s back. Gabriel had travelled to Ankara on June 5 in a last-ditch effort to reach a compromise solution to the conflict that has strained relations, both bilateral and within NATO, to an unprecedented degree. After talks with both Foreign Minister Mevlùt Çavusoglu and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Gabriel made clear that Germany would have no choice but to withdraw its troops and relocate them. “There is no decision, no concrete plan,” he said, but there was also no alternative to transfer. Çavusoglu for his part stated that, although German parliamentarians could visit troops at the NATO base at Konya, “at the moment the conditions do not exist” for them to be allowed in to Incirlik. It was expected that within days the government and Bundestag would deliberate on the matter and opt for relocating the contingent to Jordan. Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen had already explored the option in Jordan and all that remained were the formalities of procedure.
Piling Up the Straws
How could it come to this point? The controversy began a year ago in the wake of the Bundestag’s deicison on June 2 to recognize the Armenian genocide. Turkey reacted by refusing visiting rights to a delegation of German parliamentarians to Incirlik, where 260 German troops, 6 Tornadoes and fuel tankers are stationed as part of the fight against IS. In September Berlin found a compromise formulation to deflate the impact of the resolution, which led to Ankara’s permission for one visit. Turkey resurrected the ban in response to Germany’s refusal to extend the witch-hunt against persons considered to be in cahoots with the Gülen movement which Erdogan blames for the attempted coup last July. Turkey’s stance toughened further after Germany granted political asylum to Turkish officers threatened with prosecution as pro-Gülenists. In addition, Turkey charged Germany with harboring terrorists, with reference to Kurdish organizations, accused of sympathies for the PKK. To add fuel to the fire, in February of this year Turkish authorities arrested Deniz Yücel, a German-Turkish journalist, as a pro-terrorist, and followed this up by detaining a German translator on similar grounds.
Since the German army is an army of the Bundestag, it is imperative that parliamentarians have unconditional access to “their” troops, and for this reason there can be no backing down on the part of Germany. After consultations between Chancellor Angela Merkel and Defense Minister von der Leyen, it was decided to engage NATO, but NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg (whose doctrine is that Turkey is “a key country for security in Europe”) decreed the issue to be “bilateral.”
The NATO Dimension
Although the geopolitical considerations behind this are obvious, the proclamation raised eyebrows in view of the fact that Turkey had recently blocked the decision for NATO’s collaboration with Austria in the Balkans. Austria is not a NATO member but had been cooperating with 500 soldiers in NATO’s Kfor mission in Kosovo. After Austrian Foreign Minister Kurz lobbied for terminating EU entrance talks with Turkey, Ankara responded by blocking this operation.